Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Horror Music

Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


Dies Irae.

This medieval chant, the title of which signifies the wrath of God on Judgment Day, or Doomsday, because it was used for the Mass for the Dead, has since been incorporated into musical pieces involving death and horror, including a movement of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique that evokes a guillotine scene, the German expressionist film Metropolis, film music for The Return of Dracula (1958), The Shining, countless other horror films, and Michael Daugherty’s bassoon piece Dead Elvis.

A History of Horror. Silva Screen Records Ltd., 2000. SSD 1111.

Disc 1 includes 1921 music from Nosferatu and includes music from films through the mid-1970s. Minor keys and dissonances are essential for monster music, but other innovations and special effects have proven effective too.

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) — The persistent thumping pulse seems like an unnatural heartbeat, appropriately: “It’s alive!” But this pumping effect is set against some richly orchestral romantic sweeps.

Psycho (1960) — The famous music includes a kind of repetitive shrieking effect (an instant crisis alert or panic trigger) and a frantic drive.

The Exorcist (1973) — An early example of the obsessive repetition that creates a sense of urgency and, paradoxically, a kind of drive that is non-progressive — not getting anywhere, like the situation in these films for the next victim attempting an escape.

The Omen (1976) — Sing anything in Latin ominously (even “All Gaul is divided into three parts” or the back of a dollar bill) and you’ve got horror music.

Disc 2 takes us from the mid-1970s to 2000.

Suspiria (1976) — An inarticulate breathy voice provides a whispering demonsong (or freaknleid?) that almost seems to want to be subliminal; that we have aural access to it is especially troubling.

Halloween (1978) — The instantly recognizable minimalist and relentless repetition perpetuates a state of anxiety and inescapability, even frenzy or paranoia. Compulsive repetition is a mental/emotional disorder anyway, so all the more distressing.

The Shining (1980) — The Dies Irae is featured straightforwardly. But Jack Nicholson did not succeed in butchering either his wife nor that damned kid, so it’s all pretty disappointing. Cleverer is the background use in the film of the 1930s sentimental song, “Home.”

Vampire Circus. Silva Screen Records, 1993. SSD 1020.

Music from vampire films includes the Dies Irae-based overture to The Return of Dracula (1958). The theme from Fright Night is quintessentially ’80s. Orchestral music from To Die For (1989) is lush. And “The Flower Duet from Lakme” used in The Hunger (1983), and perpetually since then in commercials for chocolate and who knows what all, will nevertheless always be known as “Lesbian Vampires.”

Brain in a Box: The Science Fiction Collection. Rhino, 2000. R2 79936.

Disc 1 — Movie Themes

Although the multiple-CD set is devoted to SF, the first disk overlaps with some horror. The first track, “Science Fiction / Double Feature” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, effectively sets the mood or ‘tude of this collection: one of sincere fondness for the material despite the inevitable campiness. Then follows a generous series of 27 more tracks from Them! and Forbidden Planet to Mars Attacks!, with inclusion of familiar material from 2001 and Close Encounters. The Forbidden Planet overture sounds like Varèse, but more often the signature Theramin is included in music as orchestral though rarely as inspiring as Star Trek music. Such Theremin inclusions among the traditional instrumentations offer what amounts to alien invasion taking place in the sonic realm (The Day the Earth Stood Still, It Came From Outer Space, The Incredible Shrinking Man). The Theremin’s otherworldly sounds are more closely associated with SF than with monsters, but the eerie wailing sound can sometimes prove handy. And as 2009 monster student Alli Rowe points out, obliterating the aural divisions between notes with the Theremin’s sliding effect is the musical equivalent to “border-stepping.”

Dracula. Music by Philip Glass. Performed by Kronos Quartet. Nonesuch Records, 1999. 79542-2.

Sacrificing the effectively disturbing sweeps of suspenseful silence in the original 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi, Glass scored the entire film with his minimalist music. Minimalism is right for this kind of film, again because of the effects to be derived from relentless persistence. The string quartet also is a perfect choice for the scraping essence of the instruments and the vague gypsy evocation. The violin is the best instrument for making you wince.

Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Music and lyrics by Danny Elfman. Buena Vista Music Co., 1993. 60855-7.

Elfman at his manic best, but also lyrical. “Making Christmas” captures the semi-mindless drive of the Christmas shopping season in all essential respects except maybe for the suppressed resentment.

Classic from the Crypt. Perf. the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Boston Pops. RCA, 1992. 09026-61238-2.

Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for organ begins this collection of pieces by classical composers, including Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre (which received my vote for prom song in 1978) and other less horrifying works by Gounod, Mussorgsky, Berlioz, Grieg, Liszt, and Dukas.

Dark Shadows. Dan Curtis Productions, 1999. Varèse Sarabande 302 066 066 2.

Incidental music from the 1966-1971 soap opera and other tracks scored by Robert Cobert here were first issued on LP in 1969. In addition to David Selby speaking his way through “Shadows of the Night (Quentin’s Theme)” — which did receive some radio play back in the day and was covered frequently by singers such as Andy Williams — we get the exquisite Jonathan Frid (the only viable Barnabus Collins) narrating “I’ll Be With You Always,” “Meditations,” the Christina Rossetti poem “When I Am Dead,” and the intense “Epitaph” and “I, Barnabus.” If you were the right age at the right time, too young for Woodstock, these tracks will thrill you again like nothing has since.